Reflections on a ‘radical’ of our times
Champika was not born with a political
‘silver spoon’. He did not come from a wealthy family. And yet, this man
with sheer force of determination and incredible intellectual drive left
a singular mark in the political developments we saw in the past 20
years. I can safely say that I have never met anyone endowed with the
creative and intellectual capacities that Champika Ranawaka possesses
I think it was George Bernard Shaw who made the following
observation: ‘Reasonable men adapt themselves to the world, unreasonable
men adapt the world to themselves; therefore all progress is due to
unreasonable men.’ It is about swimming against the tide, doing the
unthinkable, defying logic and reason and overcoming all odds.
‘Progress’ is of course a loaded term, but Shaw is essentially right
in that it is those who are ‘unreasonable’, who possess powers of
observation and reasoning that enable them to envisage possibilities
unthinkable to most, that have a transformational impact on society.
The true measure of a person’s impact on his/her social, economic,
political and cultural environment is obtained only after that person is
no more. All salutations should be kept on hold until then. And yet it
is not impossible to praise and blame as appropriate in an interim
This is about a book, a biography covering 30 years in the life of a
man, a document appropriately titled patisothagamiwa this wasak. My
friend Karunaratne Paranavithana who reviewed this book recently in the
Divaina points out that patisothagami means ‘swimming upstream’ and
observes after the late Tissa Abeysekera that it is the appropriate
Sinhala equivalent of ‘radical’. The term ‘radical’ has been
appropriated by Marxists and others who are obsessed with the left-right
dichotomy; the truth however is that radicalism is not necessarily bound
by preferred political outcome or social order.
The book, by the way, was authored by Patali Champika Ranawaka, the
Environment and Natural Resources Minister. The book is more than
Champika’s recollections of his political life.
It is essential reading for students of Sri Lanka’s recent political
history, especially the student movement and the agitations in the late
80s as well as the rise of the nationalist movement which peaked, one
could argue, with the comprehensive military defeat of the LTTE in May
It is just one man’s version and does not give the whole picture,
yes. On the other hand, the man concerned was not an idle observer, but
a colossus in the political firmament. I remember Upul Shantha
Sannasgala speaking at a book launch several years ago, saying that
there were three individuals who stood out as giants of his/our
generation: Daya Pathirana (leader of the Independent Student Union,
Colombo University), Ranjithan Gunaratnam, Convenor of the JVP-dominated
Inter-University Student Federation and Champika. He observed that the
first was murdered by the JVP, the second by vigilante groups affiliated
with the UNP regime of the time and opined that had they not perished in
the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya they would have definitely shaped the nature of
Champika’s intellectual and political interventions in the 90s.
A few years ago, Milinda Moragoda asked me what kind of person
Champika was. This was my answer: ‘He is a person who reads the
political equation very accurately and is capable of playing trumps no
one knew existed and turn everything upside down’. Victor Ivan, editor
of the Ravaya, who was also present concurred.
My association with Champika goes back to the year 1990, in the
immediate aftermath of the annihilation of the JVP when there was a
marked political silence in the entire university system. I was
introduced to him by Ven. Athureliye Rathana, a brilliant student at
Peradeniya. They were instrumental in rescuing me from the intellectual
reductionism and limitations of Marxism. I have known him close to two
decades now. I was associated with political organizations he helped
launch and have observed closely his political career as it evolved.
Champika was not born with a political ‘silver spoon’. He did not
come from a wealthy family. And yet, this man with sheer force of
determination and incredible intellectual drive left a singular mark in
the political developments we saw in the past 20 years. I can safely say
that I have never met anyone endowed with the creative and intellectual
capacities that Champika Ranawaka possesses.
He has a rare clarity of mind that allows him to sit and write an
entire political column within 30 to 45 minutes, without any errors,
grammatical or otherwise, and without compromising ‘lyricality’, logic
and overall coherence. That quality is evident when he speaks too. There
was never a word too many and he got his point across whether he had 30
minutes or three minutes.
I still remember a brilliant lecture he delivered at the Institute of
Fundamental Studies, Kandy at a conference on Buddhism, Science and
Realism. He spoke on quantum physics. In 45 minutes he was able to
explain the most complex theories to people who had no background on the
material he referred to. A professor who taught this subject observed,
‘if I was asked to speak on this subject I would have needed three weeks
worth of lectures to say what Champika just said in 45 minutes’.
Champika, like Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara, argued that
the LTTE must be and can be militarily defeated. Those were unpopular
positions to take during the Chandrika Kumaratunga years. He was
vilified as a racist, a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist.
The agitational fronts he created such as the National Movement
Against Terrorism played a crucial role in creating the ideological
foundation from which that ultimate victory charge could be launched.
Champika is not a journalist, but it would be difficult for me to
name any regular columnist who could match him for volume, range of
subject and argumentative power over the past two decades.
When he took over the Environment Ministry, he bragged that he would
show how ministries should be run. Well, he made good. Within a year he
made sure that the Ministry did not require any Treasury allocations.
His work in the sphere of environment has earned him a lot of respect
internationally. He and I may disagree on many things, but I, like
almost all his detractors would acknowledge that we are better off as a
nation for the energy, intellectual punch and strong and unwavering
nationalism of this man.
He may come off as an aloof, humourless, matter-of-fact individual,
but that’s not true. He is caring and sensitive when it matters. I still
remember an incident when we were both detained (along with 12 others)
at the Wadduwa Police Station. Champika was in a cell, I was handcuffed
to the stairs along with Paranavithana, Janaka Bandara (who later became
Public Trustee) and others.
I was not in the best of moods because I had been interrogated a
little while earlier and the officer who questioned me had threatened to
assault me in the night. Champika must have noticed that I was a bit
down in the mouth. He smuggled some biscuits to me as he passed me and
spoke a few words of comfort.
In all the years of our association, I have never failed to be
impressed by the depth of his knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his
eloquence in conversation, effectiveness in argument and to win for this
country and our people victories that were thought to be unattainable.
Others might be dismayed of course, and that’s understandable. Whichever
way one looks at him, Ranawaka is a man to be reckoned with.
In our generation, I can say with confidence, there is no one who is
endowed with the skills and capacities that this man possesses. His book
is therefore a window into an extraordinary political actor and one who
will remain a determining force in our society. Worth a read.